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A.J. Epenesa is ready to take NFL step after following father’s footsteps at Iowa

Defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa of Iowa runs a drill during the NFL combine
Iowa defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa is expected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick in the NFL draft.
(Joe Robbins / Getty Images)

The Times examines the top prospects ahead of the NFL draft, to be held April 23-25.

The drive from his hometown of Edwardsville, Ill., to the University of Iowa was just 273 miles for A.J. Epenesa, the 6-foot-5, 275-pound edge rusher who is expected to be a late first-round or early second-round pick in the NFL draft.

That was a mere hop, skip and a jump to college compared to the 6,370-mile journey his father, Eppy, took from American Samoa to Iowa, where the former defensive lineman earned a scholarship after making the Hawkeyes as a walk-on in 1995.

Eppy’s football career ended in Iowa City — he’s worked as a ground operations manager for Southwest Airlines at the St. Louis Airport for the last 19 years — but his son will move on to the NFL in part because of the training and tutelage Eppy has provided.

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Tua Tagovailoa showed at Alabama he can excel in big games, but questions about the quarterback’s injury history has drawn extra scrutiny from NFL teams.

“My dad coached me in Pee Wee football, and he taught all of us on the D-line how to do a jab-and-swim move and a rip move, where other coaches were just telling them to run forward,” A.J. Epenesa said at the NFL combine in February.

“My dad taught us from a young age to get our hands on people and throw them to get off blocks. I was pretty lucky to have a mentor like him in the house all the time, someone who knows the game of football and played the same position.”

Epenesa, who was athletic enough to score more than 1,000 career points in basketball and win two state titles in the discus throw in high school, relied on his size, hand strength, long arms — measured at 34 ½ inches at the combine — power and quickness to develop into an NFL prospect.

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It took some convincing from his high school football coach before Andrew Thomas realized he should aim to play the sport at the highest level.

He was a rotational player in his first two seasons at Iowa, recording 4 ½ sacks and 5 ½ tackles for lost yardage as a freshman in 2017, and 10 ½ sacks, 16 ½ tackles for loss and four forced fumbles as a sophomore in 2018.

Epenesa earned a starting role as a junior in 2019, recording 49 tackles, 14 ½ for loss, 11 ½ sacks and four forced fumbles in 13 games to earn first-team All-Big 10 and second-team All-American honors.

Asked at the combine to name the toughest pass rusher he’s ever faced, Iowa offensive tackle and projected first-round pick Tristan Wirfs said, “A.J. Epenesa, 100%.”

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Mekhi Becton had plenty of soul food but not enough soul for the game. The Louisville offensive lineman’s dedication to discipline transformed him in 2019.

Epenesa, 21, struggled at times in the first half of last season but was more dominant in the second half when he figured how to attack double teams and counter chip blocks.

NFL scouts are unsure about Epenesa’s potential and position. They like his size, hand strength, explosive first step and bull-rushing techniques, but he might not be athletic or quick enough to play the edge in the NFL, and he would have to gain weight to move inside.

“Whenever they ask me [about moving to tackle] I tell them it’s not my most comfortable position, just because I didn’t have 100,000 reps at it like I did at end,” Epenesa said. “But they also say it’s something I could grow to be better at. … I want to be versatile enough to play multiple positions.”


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